Diet for Cancer Support
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
When you are first given the news of cancer diagnoses, your head will probably be in a spin with shock, fear and dismay. Later when you are given your treatment protocol of say surgery, chemo or radiation, it appears that the last thing to be discussed is your diet, if at all.
Clients have told me that when they asked their doctor what they should or shouldn’t eat, the response was to eat whatever they liked. Doctors often encouraged foods such as pizza, processed food, lots of carbs and sugar to keep the calories up because their patients were likely to lose lots of weight from the treatment they were about to receive.
In most cases, nothing is suggested about healthy eating. Unfortunately, as far as I know, good nutritional education is usually not provided to medical students at university.
There are many different types of cancers and lots of claims about remedies for cancer. I do not make any claims. My role is to recommend the best nutrition possible and remove potential inhibitors to healing from the diet.
The aim is to reduce the toxic load on your body by removing foods such as sugar, caffeine and pro-inflammatory foods and replacing them with nutritious, healthy meals and organic food, where possible.
It is generally accepted that eating a healthy balanced diet can reduce your risk of developing cancer, while a poor diet can increase cancer risk. Good nutrition is really important if you already have cancer, because both the illness and its treatment can affect your appetite, as well as your body’s ability to tolerate certain foods and absorb nutrients.
- Carrots, peas, pumpkin and turnips for vitamins and fibre
- Tomatoes, tomato puree and parsley, especially good for prostate cancer
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage as they contain plant chemicals that can convert bad oestrogen into good oestrogen.
- Asparagus and Brussels sprouts for their rich antioxidants
- Green leafy vegetables for calcium, magnesium and iron
- Oranges to provide vitamin C as an antioxidant
- Bananas, kiwifruit, peaches, mangoes, pears and strawberries for vitamins and fibre
- Avocadoes, apricots, figs, prunes and raisins for energy
- Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs
- Nuts, seeds, dried beans, dhal and chickpeas
- Rice, rice noodles, rice pasta
- Quinoa, buckwheat, legumes
- Honey, consumed in small amounts for its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties which may help in the prevention of infections. Maple syrup and brown rice syrup in small amounts can be a good sweetener but take care with quantities used, as sugar can feed cancer cells
- Good fats include coconut oil, raw olive oil and raw macadamia nut oil i.e. raw = not heated
- Cooking meat and seafood on high heat such as deep fried, grilled, broiled, barbequed and baked is best avoided. Cooking animal protein on high heat creates carcinogenic by-products called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are toxic chemicals that are formed when muscle meat, such as beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods. Low heat cooking is preferable
- Excessive intake of salt, sugar and oily foods
- Processed meats such as bacon, ham and sausages, as the nitrates and nitrites as well as the additives and fillers in these can be carcinogenic
- Preserved, pickled and certain fermented foods can contain compounds considered to be dangerous when you are feeling delicate, especially during treatment. They can also contain contaminants and bacteria that may not be suitable during this time frame.
- Totally avoid alcohol as this is a toxic poison to your body
- Foods containing gluten and dairy
A diet for cancer support is not a cure. The aim is to reduce the toxic load on your body by including foods that support the body and eliminating foods considered detrimental to help your body to do its natural job of healing.
This is why foods containing sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy, additives and potential pro-inflammatory foods are not recommended and instead replaced with nutritious, healthy, supportive food.
There may be times when all that can be handled is a simple soup, or steamed veggies. In the re-building (after treatment) phase more robust foods can be introduced.
Important: Before you make any dietary changes, see a qualified, experienced health practitioner as to what foods and supplements are best for your body. Also, do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional, who may even prescribe extra supplementation.
Note: During the early stages of your new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
While it’s all very well to suggest a healthy eating plan for you while you have cancer, it’s great when you can do it, however there may be times when you simply cannot manage certain foods due to nausea, vomiting, pain or for whatever reason. This is when you do the best you can manage and eat what feels right for you.
This isn’t a free card to eat whatever you want, but rather to let you know that your body has infinite wisdom and may ask you to eat specific foods on certain days. For example, I’ve known people with cancer who said that all they could eat one day was mangos and the next day they couldn’t stand the smell of them. Or one day they needed to eat lots of salty foods. Or they just had to eat just bananas…and the list goes on.
It’s somewhat like pregnancy when the body calls for certain nutrients to deal with what it’s going through at that moment – for example, to settle the liver or to support inflamed intestines. You don’t have to understand it, just honour what the body is calling for.
However, there can be some tricks. If you feel like chocolate, then your body is really calling for magnesium rich foods. Salt cravings means your body needs more minerals.
If uncertain, get help from an understanding practitioner, but most of all…please listen to your body.
Client name and identifying information changed
Libby, an 85-year-old client, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy to remove both breasts and surrounding lymphatic tissue. Initially she wasn’t going to have any treatment because of the potential risk at her age, and some thought that she may not live any longer with or without the treatment.
But Libby was otherwise very strong and decided to go ahead with the treatment plan. Once the program was started, she was on a roller coaster of treatment regimes, including chemotherapy and radiation, as more spots were found in other parts of her body where the cancer had spread.
After a few weeks of treatment Libby came to me as she felt her life force being stripped away by the treatments.
Due to family pressure, she decided to stay with the medical regime for a while, but wanted to see what could be done to otherwise support herself. Her doctors told her to keep her weight up by eating anything that was high calorie, such as pizzas, hamburgers, chocolate, bread, pastry and so on. But her weight kept dropping no matter what she ate (she was a tiny lady as it was) and she just didn’t feel good about what she was eating.
I asked her what would feel good to eat and she replied that she had been craving broths but knew that they didn’t have many calories. Her body also craved fats but she would vomit every time she ate animal fats.
I thought that broths and soups would be great for her as they are easy to digest and loaded with minerals. I shared some easy to make recipes and suggested she added some coconut fat to the soups and broths by using creamed coconut and/or coconut oil.
She loved that idea. After a few weeks of eating broths, soups full of pureed vegetables, coconut oil and creamed coconut (with raw cacao added for her choc fix) she felt more vital and was coping much better with the treatments.
Later she decided that she didn’t want to continue with the treatments as the doctors said she wasn’t responding to what they were giving her. Instead, she decided to live for the rest of her days with good healthy food choices as she had never felt better.
Several years have passed and I keep in contact with her family (also clients) and so far, she is still going well. Please note that I did not recommend she stop any treatments, this was a decision made between Libby and her doctors.